I always used to think how amazing it is the way that dancers pick up exercises so quickly: a teacher rattles through a list of steps in ballet shorthand, says ‘and’, the music starts, and then off they go. Amazing. But just watch what happens when a pianist is unclear with their phrasing, by changing harmony in an unexpected part of an eight-bar phrase, improvising shapelessly over an almost unchanging harmonic structure, or playing in a rhythmically erratic way. The hardiest of dancers will battle on regardless, but many will begin to look unsure of what they’re doing. It may not fall apart completely, but the first casualty will be confidence: it’s very difficult to start a movement decisively if you’re not sure whether you’re at the end of a phrase or the beginning.
In other words, don’t underestimate the contribution of clear, well-shaped musical phrasing over a steady beat to your dancers’ capacity to remember the exercise, particularly in adage. Here’s what I mean by clear phrasing:
- Play everything as if you’re singing
- Breathe – literally – between phrases. If you can’t breathe between phrases, you’re not playing the right kind of music.
- Articulate everything – delineate subphrases as well as the big ones.
- Avoid confusing or ambiguous melodies (like the Chopin example from the Fantaisie Impromptu illustrated above)
- Shape the phrase with the dynamics of the left hand. Imagine you’re playing for a singer that has no capacity for expression, and you have to save the show with the accompaniment.
- Use the kind of rubato where your accompaniment is rock steady, but the melody has freedom
It’s rather ironic that those three things I call ‘unclear’ are to some extent highly prized in the world of classical music: breaking conventions and doing the unexpected; recitative-like improvisation as an expression of individual freedom; extreme rubato as a symbol of individual expression. That may explain why playing for class is regarded as a very low form of musical life, yet very few classically trained musicians are any good at it.